Friday, November 15, 2013

The 60's Memorials

Moving from the FDR Memorial to the MLK Memorial was an interesting, thought-provoking experience. It was as though we were making a pilgrimage to monuments to the on-going struggle throughout the 20th century for the creation of a more just, equal and enlightened society. 

I knew nothing about design and content of the MLK Memorial prior to our visit. But I could remember the 60's. I can remember seeing protest marches on the evening news, along with news of that day's killing in Vietnam, news that nightly visited every family in the nation. I remember the awful spring of 1968, when MLK's assassination by a white man set off violent demonstrations in many cities of the country. I can also more vividly recall the assassination and funeral a few months later of Robert Kennedy.

Upon doing some background reading for this post, I came across a speech that Robert Kennedy (who was running that spring for the Democratic nomination for president) made at a campaign rally in a predominantly black area of Indianapolis the night of King's assassination. (King's death wasn't confirmed until Kennedy had landed in Indianapolis, and he conveyed the news to those assembled at the rally. The speech, therefore, was extemporaneous.) As I read the speech, it brought back the sense of idealism I recall being associated with RFK and demonstrates how different the tone of political discourse was then as compared to now. Here is an excerpt:
"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
"We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
"For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
"But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
"My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

One enters the King Memorial through the "mountain of despair," a reference to a quote from MLK's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Neatly cut out of this mountain of despair is a "stone of hope" - King.

From the MLK Memorial, we walked to the Lincoln Memorial. It seemed fitting that this was the next stop on our "pilgrimage," as this edifice has served not only as the closest thing we Americans have to a national shrine, but as the site of many historic events marking the struggle toward a more equal and just society and nation, such as Marian Anderson's performance in 1939 and MLK's "March on Washington" in 1963.

I thought about these events as Mark and I ascended the many steps to the "temple of freedom." (I think Memorial's resemblance to ancient Greek temples is no accident; and in fact the inscription above Lincoln's statue explicitly refers to the memorial as a temple.)

I also thought about how the Tea Party and their ilk don't have much time for Lincoln. Lincoln was a unifier, a preserver, a man who sought to "bind up the nation's wounds" after the terrible slaughter incurred in the Civil War - as memorialized in the words of his second inaugural address:

These people clothe themselves in the garb and in the supposed ideology of those who were there when Moses parted the Red Sea and God himself fought the American Revolution and delivered the Constitution on Mt. Sinai. These people are too often filled with hatred, division and bigotry. No, they have no use for Lincoln. They can't use him, for he was the great unifier, not the great divider.

It gave me pause, as we stood in front of Lincoln's statue, to wonder how differently American history might have progressed if Lincoln had lived and had been able to carry out his dream of a unified, compassionate and equal America.

Isn't he gorgeous?

The Vietnam War Memorial is visible from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - another monument to that critical decade of the 60's, to both the dreams and the contradictions of that tumultuous time. We were fortunate to be there on Veterans' Day. I won't add any commentary about our visit to that long black wall. The pictures tell the story.

This struck me as a cool picture, but I sense a deep meaning to this photograph that is eluding my grasp.
Perhaps we are a reflection of what these men would have been had they been standing there?

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